Provenance – the history of ownership of an object or work of art from its creation to the present – provides a powerful lens through which to gain a deeper understanding of collection items and their contextual significance to museum collections. At the Smithsonian, provenance research impacts the universe of our diverse collections, ranging from paintings to pandas, and from rare books to a spacecraft.
Akin to detective work, provenance research serves as an essential tool for solving issues of the authentication and attribution (determination of authorship) of collection objects. Provenance research is labor-intensive, and the loss of ownership information of an object’s history over time makes attempts to fill in the gaps particularly challenging – as it is more common for an object to carry incomplete ownership history than a complete one. Indeed, no matter the amount of research undertaken, the provenance of many objects and works of art may never be fully revealed. Nevertheless, provenance research is a fundamental aspect of curatorial work.
The Smithsonian is committed to providing access to its collections, research findings, and collections information through publicly accessible online databases, like the Collections Search Center, to ensure the widest dissemination of knowledge.